1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! 2 Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. 3 Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. 5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. (CEB)
Come to the Waters
My mother once told me to be careful of deals that sound too good to be true because they probably are. Can you imagine a billboard or TV commercial inviting the public to come and get all you need for free? Most of us would assume something was up, some game must be afoot, some ulterior motive has to be at play. That’s exactly the kind of invitation God seems to offer through Isaiah. Isaiah invites everyone who’s thirsty or hungry to come and buy food and drink, even if they don’t have any money to make the purchase! Yet, this is not quite the no-strings-attached deal that it might, at first, sound like. Really, it’s a prophetic invitation to make an exchange from one way of life to THE way of life.
There are a few important things that we need to understand about Biblical prophets. First, one common misconception is that the prophets tell us the future, but that’s not even close to the main point of what the prophets intend to say. The primary concern of the Biblical prophets is to speak God’s word to God’s people so that the people might turn wholly back to God. Sometimes that prophetic word contained an element of, if you don’t change your ways, then this bad thing will happen and, if you do change your ways, then this good thing will happen, but prophets were not really concerned with telling the future so much as they were concerned with telling the truth about God and how people were living.
The prophet Amos, for example, spoke against the rich and powerful who were neglecting to care for the poor and powerless in a time when the rich kept getting richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor kept getting poorer. For a prophet who preached in the 8th century B.C., his words are incredibly relevant today.
The prophetic story begins with a God who searches us out and seeks to be in a relationship with each member of the human race. The prophets spoke deeply challenging words in order to get people’s heart, mind, body, and soul in line with the way of life that God designed for humanity as good and life-giving for everyone. Prophets are the ones who called people to account. Even words that were meant to comfort God’s people, such as the whole of Isaiah chapters 40 through 55, which is often called the Book of Consolation, profoundly challenges those who hear it.
Second, Biblical prophecies are full of paradigms that can allow for multiple interpretations across the ages. There is always the original context of the prophetic words. Then, there are the many ways people have understood those same words to apply to them and their context in later years. The original context of Isaiah 55, for example, is most likely the Babylonian exile, but later generations have heard these words and understood them differently in their own contexts. Amos was the earliest of the writing prophets but, as I said, his words are hauntingly relevant 28 centuries later.
Let’s look at that original context of Isaiah 55:1-5. Many of the exiled Jews in Babylon had followed the advice of the prophet Jeremiah who told them to settle into life in their new location. “The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7 CEB).
So, settle in they did. Some prospered quite well and, when the opportunity to return to Judah came about by King Cyrus of Persia’s decree, some descendants of these exiles chose to stay because life was good. In fact, some stayed in that land until the formation of the modern state of Israel.
Isaiah’s prophetic word to the people in exile was a call to return to the Lord, to remember the place from which they came. This is a promise of restoration to an exiled people, some of whom have probably gotten caught up in the glitz, glamor, and wealth of cosmopolitan Babylon. Others among the exiles might have been struggling with the basic necessities of life, and these words would serve as a reminder that God would bring them home.
Curiously, Isaiah asks why the people spend their money for that which is not food and their earnings for that which does not satisfy. In that sense, what Isaiah seems to speak against is a misalignment of priorities and values of some kind. If Isaiah were to ask these questions to us, how might we answer? In what ways do we spend our money for things that aren’t food and our savings for things that don’t satisfy? If we take the question literally, we Americans are a people who are easily caught up in the vicious cycle of consumerism. Many of our compatriots spend more than they earn, have amassed insurmountable debt, yet continue to buy and spend as if money grows on trees.
We’re so easily caught up in this cycle because every commercial we see or hear entices us to shell out money for things that promise to satisfy us. Advertisements promise us happiness, contentment, fulfillment, a sense of power, prestige, or a means to impress others and get them to think well of us. In fact, many Americans have so many bills to pay from so many products we’ve been seduced to purchase that we hardly have time for things like family, friends, and other meaningful relationships. We work, not so we can live happily with those we love, but so we can pay for the stuff we can’t afford but bought anyway.
It isn’t only consumerism that can suck us into a black hole, but how we spend our time. During a particularly difficult period of my life, I became completely addicted to computer games. They were my escape from a bad reality of anxiety and depression when I was bullied in my workplace. I spent hours each day in front of a screen. I neglected my wife. I neglected my children. I chose my computer over the people I loved the most, to the point that my wife started to call my computer, “the other woman.”
Thankfully, God gave me the chance to get out of that mess. I realized that I could either continue down that destructive path or I could choose to devote my time to people in ways that would be productive. So, I quit playing games and started giving my attention to those who deserved it, needed it, and wanted it. I worked on my relationships with people that were life-giving for me and for them. I realized it was my choice to do one or the other. I also realized that my time doesn’t only belong to me. My time also belongs to others, especially the people I love and who love me. It was a challenging thing to realize that I don’t belong wholly to myself. We are meant to live in community with each other. That’s how God made us.
Through Isaiah’s word, God called the people in exile to listen and invest themselves in the relationships and things that mattered. They were invited to come to God so that they could live–truly live. They were invited to pay attention and partake in those things that are good, satisfying, and delightful.
Those who answered the call would be party to an everlasting covenant, represented by God’s steadfast and sure love for David. Isaiah set David before the people as an example of God’s faithfulness. God was with David throughout his life, and made promises to him that were kept. The people could believe what God was saying to them. If they harbored doubts about God’s fidelity, then they could remember what God did for David. More than that, other nations that they don’t even know will run to them because of the renewal they experience. Others will see and be curious enough to take a closer look. This insignificant, broken, humiliated nation will survive and shine like a light to other, more powerful nations surrounding them, if they partake in the kind of life that is good and delight in the Lord.
No matter what situation we’re in, there is a chance for renewal, a promise of a new future. But it doesn’t just happen magically. We have to choose that future by exchanging a destructive way of life for a productive way of life. There will never be a new golden age in our lives, our relationships, or our communities if we don’t even attempt them. We have to incline our ear to God’s prophetic message. We have to listen and choose the things that are good and life-giving.
Some of the ways we do that are by devoting ourselves to the Spiritual disciplines and means of grace of our Christian faith. Another might be to devote ourselves in some specific ways to serving others, or investing ourselves in our faith community and our local community in impactful ways. What’s more, others will see how we live. Our lives are never as insulated or private as we think. Others see how we spend our time and the way we interact with those around us. When we devote ourselves to God and to others, when we show love and care for the people in our lives, the world knows.
Through Isaiah’s words, God invites us to this banquet. A banquet to which anyone can come. Any person who thirsts for water is invited to drink. Anyone who hungers for something to eat, whether they have money or not, is invited to buy food and join in. For some of us, that might not be a comfortable notion. This is a meal where everyone is on the A list, even people whose presence we might call into question. But this meal is a reflection of God’s kingdom and that kingdom’s values, which are not necessarily our values. Everyone is invited.
God promises an everlasting covenant and a way of life that builds community and egalitarianism among those who share in it. The walls that formerly divided rich from poor, powerful from weak, predator from vulnerable will be torn down when we choose the kind of life-giving way of life that God holds up before our eyes. What matters is how we treat one another. How we love one another. How we devote ourselves to those around us. Even how generously we give. Those things reveal something of our devotion to God. Through Isaiah, God doesn’t merely invite us to feast. God invites us to feast with each other.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!